Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Living on the Edge - Religion and Science are not at war

Excerpt from the upcoming book Living on the Edge by Jonathan Burke:

The mythical conflict of science & Scripture (1)

Although it is commonly belived that Christianity has traditionally been at war with science, the reality is very different.[1] [2] [3] [4] This view, known as the ‘Conflict Thesis’ or ‘Conflict Model’, originated in the 19th century as a result of anti-religious sentiment. 

Two 19th century works in particular were responsible for creating and popularizing this view; John William Draper’s ‘History of the Conflict between Religion and Science’ (1874), and Andrew Dickson White’s ‘History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’ (1896).

The conflict thesis dominated historical discussion during the 19th and 20th centuries, though it was increasingly modified from 1950 onward.[5] Works by Frank Turner (1974), and James More (1979), contributed significantly to its decline in influence,[6] and the conflict thesis has been comprehensively rejected by modern historians of science.[7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

[1] ‘Despite a developing consensus among scholars that Christianity and science had not been at war, the notion of conflict refused to die.’, Lindberg & Numbers (eds.), ‘God and Nature: Historical essays on the encounter between Christianity and Science’, p. 6 (1986).

[2] ‘The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.’, Ferngren (ed.), ‘Science and Religion: A historical introduction’, p. ix (2002).

[3]  ‘As a historical tool, the conflict thesis is so blunt that it is more damaging than serviceable. One only has to consider the "two books" of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) - nature and Scripture - each of which had a role complementary to that of the other. They were not held to be at odds with each other because they dealt with different subjects. Again, for many scientific figures in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,Christianity played a central role in fostering and even shaping their scientific endeavours: The instances of Kepler, Robert Boyle (1627-91), Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) are the most conspicuous.’, Russell, ‘The Conflict of Science and Religion’, in Ferngren (ed.), ‘Science and Religion: A historical introduction’, p. 8 (2002).

[4] ‘Historians of science, however, rejected this stereotype long ago.’, Westman, ‘The Copernicans and the Churches’, Blackwell Essential Readings in History, p. 44 (2003).

[5] ‘Despite the growing number of scholarly modifications and rejections of the conflict model from the 1950's, the Draper-White thesis proved to be tenacious, thought it is probably true that it had been more successfully dispelled for the seventeenth century than for the nineteenth. At any rate, in the 1970s leading historians of the nineteenth century still felt required to attack it. In the second volume of his Victorian Church (1970), Owen Chadwick viewed the conflict thesis as a misconception that many Victorians had about themselves.’, Wilson, ‘The Historiography of Science and Religion’, in Ferngren (ed.),  ‘Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction’, p. 21 (2002).

[6] ‘Whatever the reasons for the continued survival of the conflict thesis, two other books on the nineteenth century that were published in the 1970s hastened its final demise among historians of science. In 1974, Frank Turner carved out new conceptual territory in Between Science and Religion. He studied six later Victorians (including Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-inventor of the theory of evolution by natural selection) who rejected both Christianity and the agnostic “scientific naturalism” of the time. In their various ways, they used different methods, including the empiricism of science (but not the Bible), to support two traditionally religious ideas; the existence of a God and the reality of human immortality. Even more decisive was the penetrating critique “Historians and Historiography” that James Moore placed at the beginning of his Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979).’, ibid., p. 23.

[7] ‘The claim that the advance of science necessarily brings it into conflict with established religious beliefs was advanced most energetically in the late nineteenth century by those who believed that science was the vehicle by which a new, secular view of the human situation would be established.’, Bowler, ‘Reconciling Religion and Science: The Debate in Early Twentieth-Century Britain’, p., 10 (2010).

[8] ‘In the late Victorian period it was common to write about the "warfare between science and religion" and to presume that these two bodies of culture must always have been in conflict. However, it is a very long time since these attitudes have been held by historians of science.’, Shapin, ‘The Scientific Revolution’, p. 195 (1996).

[9] ‘In its traditional forms, the thesis has been largely discredited.’, Brooke, ‘Science and Religion: Some historical perspectives’, p. 42 (1991).

[10] ‘The conflict thesis, at least in its simple form, is now widely perceived as a wholly inadequate intellectual framework within which to construct a sensitive and realistic historiography of Western science.’, Russell, 'The Conflict of Science and Religion’, in Ferngren (ed.), ‘Science and Religion: A historical introduction’, p. 10 (2002).

[11] ‘However, it is salutary to note that serious historical scholarship has revealed the conflict thesis as, at best, an oversimplification and, at worst, a deception.’, ibid., p. 10.